theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Henry Irving 6th February 1838 – 13th October 1905
Henry Irving was born John Henry Brodribb in Somerset to a tailoring salesman who, having found different employment in Bristol by 1842, sent his son to his Cornish aunt and uncle for six years rather than risk young John’s exposure to the damp and grime. At the age of 10 he was reunited with his parents in London.
Like Laurence Olivier after him, Irving was drawn to the profession through the church – his mother was a strict Methodist – the Wesleyan language igniting the theatrical spark. Mrs Brodribb was not pleased that her son chose the life of an itinerant actor – how overwhelmed she would have been to see him knighted. His father helped to nurture that spark when he took the lad to see Samuel Phelps as Hamlet.
The future knight overcame the drawbacks of a stutter and an ‘abnormal gait’ in his early years by taking elocution lessons and exercise. The rigours of Cornish life followed by a daily swim in the London Thames gave him a lung capacity which would stand him in good stead. Such determination and focus remained with him for life.
Overnight fame took fifteen years. His first job after leaving school was as a merchant’s clerk but he was able to put his first toe in the water when he received a legacy of £100 from his uncle. He used this to furnish himself with the accoutrements required of an actor at that time–costumes, wigs, swords– and to buy himself the lead in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet giving himself the stage name Henry Irving. It was Samuel Phelps for whom he performed a speech from Othello in 1856 when a positive response encouraged him to search for professional work. ‘Have nothing to do with the theatre,’ said Phelps. Irving’s confident swagger when replying that he was nevertheless determined upon the stage changed Phelps’ mind and he offered him Sadler’s Wells at £2 a week.
Irving refused and went off to Sunderland to work at the Lyceum Theatre where actors were required to rehearse supporting parts for a whole season with great actors of the day coming up for short runs in the leads. During the following ten years he learnt his craft playing hundreds of parts up and down the country in towns and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. In 1866 he came to the West End, scoring a success as Doricourt in Mrs Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem at St James’s Theatre. This was not his first London appearance. He had appeared before in an unsuccessful production at the Princess’s Theatre in 1859 but had found the experience so dispiriting that he headed back to the provinces.
His success at St James’s served to establish him in the public eye and was followed by a series of appearances for the same company. He joined the Queen’s Theatre in 1867 where he worked with Charles Wyndham, J L Toole, and Nelly Farran. He played Petruchio to Ellen Terry’s Katherina, their first time together on stage, foreshadowing their enduring partnership from the late 1870s. He also had much success at the Vaudeville in 1870 as Digby Grant in The Two Roses.
It was not until 1871 when he appeared at the Lyceum Theatre as Mathias in The Bells, a melodrama adapted by Leopold Lewis from the book by Erckmann-Chatrian, that his lasting fame was assured and the fortunes of the Lyceum–under a cloud at that time–reversed. His performance as an unconvicted murderer with a guilty conscience was feted by all and his dominance of the British stage lasted for the next 30 years with Mathias remaining in his repertoire. His Hamlet in 1874 was to be another major turning point, proving he was the most charismatic actor on the Victorian stage.
When the Lyceum’s manager Hezekiah L Bateman died in 1875, Irving continued under his widow until 1877. The following year he took over as manager and set about creating the best company he could, employing the finest crew of actors, set designers, costume designers and stage management. He was one of the first to further the development of gaslight for the stage and which he used to great effect. Indeed, he created a standard of ensemble playing which pointed the way forward and engendered a desire in audiences for more of the same. It became the ‘done thing’ to visit the Lyceum and audiences resembled the more recent fans for Jude Law and Madonna in the West End. He became a Mason and began moving in both royal and political circles. His friendship with Dracula writer Abraham (Bram) Stoker began in this decade and he made the Dubliner his Acting Manager at the start of his Lyceum tenure. The friendship endured until Irving’s death.
The new manager engaged Ellen Terry as his leading lady and the mesmeric quality of their playing was rewarded with full houses night after night. Irving was never considered the greatest of actors but his personality brought ‘that little something extra’ to the playing. There was Twelfth Night, Iago to Edwin Booth‘s Othello–not a success–The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Dion Boucicault‘s The Corsican Brothers, Watts Phillips’ The Dead Heart, King Lear, Macbeth and Tennyson’s Becket, as well as inevitable revivals of The Bells.
His audiences were not confined to the UK–the company made several sorties to America and Canada over the years which greatly enhanced his reputation. Later productions included Cymbeline, King Arthur–a particular favourite with American audiences–Comyns Carr’s Madame Sans-Gene, and Irving’s younger son Laurence’s play, Peter the Great, as well as the latter’s translation of Sardou’s Robespierre. The Merchant with Irving as Shylock and Terry as Portia gave particular pleasure. Irving played against the prevailing trend by portraying a flawed man and not the devil–the play ran for seven months.
Irving had an interesting relationship with the young critic George Bernard Shaw who said that too many of the Lyceum plays were weak and that Terry should not be wasting her talents on them. An antagonistic future beckoned and when GBS sent Irving A Man of Destiny, for which Irving paid him a retainer, and gave it not a second mention, GBS was outraged. For Irving it had been a mere gesture towards a struggling artist. And in spite of blandishments from Terry at the request of GBS, he refused to entertain the idea of performing the ‘naturalistic’ Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. He listened to two acts of John Gabriel Borkman read by the actress before saying, ‘Threadworms and leeches are an interesting study, but they have no interest to me.’
In 1895 his lasting fame was assured when he became the first actor ever to be knighted. A ceremony at Windsor Castle on July 18th marked the start of a new respect and consideration for actors–the endless accusations that we were all ‘rogues and vagabonds’ would start to fade. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from three universities, Cambridge, Glasgow and Dublin. It is said that before the knighthood came, he was dismissive of the idea: ‘[The actor] acts among his colleagues, without whom he is powerless; and to give him some distinction in the playbill which others could not enjoy would be prejudicial to his success—and fatal, I believe, to his popularity.’
Irving’s life was not without problems. His marriage was a failure and the couple soon separated though not before producing two sons, Henry and Laurence. Henry, as H B Irving, followed in his father’s footsteps as did writer Laurence, though the former had first trained for the bar, the latter for the diplomatic service.
The year 1897 proved to be their father’s ‘annus horribilis’ when Peter the Great, written by Laurence, was a huge disaster and drained the finances. There followed the devastation of his scene dock by fire which destroyed most of the scenery used in the Lyceum’s repertoire; there was inadequate insurance to cover it. Illness beset him in 1898 and the company went on tour without him; there was a corresponding drop in ticket sales. In 1899 he reluctantly ceded control of the theatre to a limited liability company though he continued to appear there, playing Coriolanus in 1901. His swan song at the Lyceum was a return to Shylock in 1902, again with Ellen Terry as Portia. It was an emotional run.
Irving set off on a series of farewell tours in 1904, intending to retire in 1906. But at 68 years of age he was spent, dying in a Bradford hotel on October 13th the following year while touring in Becket. Edward VII’s subjects were taken by surprise and much saddened by his passing. Actress Lena Ashwell said, ‘There were giants in those days, and the giant who made the deepest and most lasting impression upon England was Henry Irving.’ The actor died penniless.
Sarah Vernon © 19.10.12
This is a revised version of an article first published on Rogues & Vagabonds (18.7.02 )
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